Morning Pages

Yesterday, I came across this habit called writing “morning pages.” It is something I have been doing for a while, but I didn’t know that it had a name to it. Morning pages is the habit of writing at least three pages every morning. There are some rules attached to it. Firstly, the writing must be done by putting pen to paper- none of this digital stuff. Secondly, the writing must be just stream-of-consciousness. This means, no careful planning, no wilful narrating, and of course, no editing. It is just the act of penning down whatever it is that is currently going through your mind. Thirdly, it has to be honest. No self-editing for political correctness and such. The purpose is to just transfer one’s thoughts into paper in an effort to clear the clutter in your mind. It is also recommended that this activity be done in the morning. It is supposed to help one be more creative during the day, when done in the morning. Lastly, the pages must be kept private, that is, they are not meant to be read at all… by anybody. That includes you the writer! If you do want to read what you wrote, it is recommended that you wait a long time before you do so. The logic behind this rule is that you don’t want the junk back in your head. You are writing to get rid of it.

I started doing just this about a month ago. One morning, I woke up at 4 AM and could not go back to sleep. I gave up trying to fall asleep after an hour and decided to just get up and do something else. I had all these thoughts running around in my head and it felt chaotic. So I grabbed a notebook and wrote it all down, as and when it came to me. I found that it really helped clear my head. Since then, I have done this a couple more times and yesterday I found that there is name for it. (Just like I found out that my system of rapid logging lists in a notebook also has a name for it – a bullet journal and the doodling artwork that I have done since I was a kid is a “zentangle”. I guess I am just not enterprising enough to market my ideas!)

So yesterday, I decided to try and make this a regular habit. I woke up today and wrote four pages. I am amazed at how much it helped clear my head. Then again, it makes sense. I have always found writing to calm me down in some way. But, so far I have only used it to write publically in a blog or a facebook post or something. The drawback of that is that I sometimes go through a phase when I am depressed or disturbed and I don’t feel like divulging my thoughts to anyone. I feel vulnerable and I want to withdraw from the world. This then leads to long absences from writing (such as in this blog for nearly seven months or so), while I wait to come out of the funk. I think I now found a way to circumvent that with this morning pages ritual.

Initially, I wondered if writing the morning pages meant that I would run out of things to say and won’t be able to keep this blog going. Instead, it inspired me to write this. I wonder why it took me so long to figure this out. I kept a personal diary for about ten years from the age of 10-20. One day, I dug into my old diaries and read some of it. It all felt to inane and stupid that I just completely gave up on keeping a diary. Then, I started an “open diary” online. It was initially great but as annonymity gave way to a social network of sorts, I stopped writing in that. (Also the site closed up, I think). Now I realize that I have always had a real need to put down my private thoughts somewhere. Its not that my private thoughts are so horrible, its just that I am inherently a very private person.

Later, I got into the habit of keeping a journal each year. I do that even now, but I only write down appointments, reminders, or something important that happened. Now I have finally found a solution with the morning pages. I love the act of actually putting pen to paper. I always have. It makes me think better. I was always the student who made copious notes. The only drawback with morning pages is keeping it secret from nosy relatives (read nosy kids). I think the solution lies in periodically destroying the pages. It will take some practice for me to figure out how often that can be done.

So, to all my writer friends out there, have a go at morning pages. It might help you like it helped me.

-AB

P.S. What is the difference between a diary and a journal? I can’t seem to find a satisfactory answer for that.

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How my Kindle saved my mind

I promised myself six moths ago that once I had settled down in the US, I would try to wean myself off my sleeping pill… again. Six years ago, I was prescribed a popular sleeping pill when I was suffering from acute carpel tunnel syndrome. Soon after I fell asleep, my hands would cramp, hurt like hell, and invariably disrupt my sleep. After several medical interventions the carpel tunnel was solved by surgery. I had carpel tunnel release surgery in both hands and it was the only thing that finally fixed it. The pain stopped on the day of the surgery six years ago and never returned. Unfortunately, the sleeping pill stuck with me. Having been an insomniac all my life, prescribing a notoriously addictive sleeping pill to me was like writing a prescription for alcohol and handing it to an alcoholic. Since then I have tried to wean myself off the medicine twice. The first time, I almost succeeded and then got pulled back, probably because I wanted just “one” more night of good sleep. The second attempt was so half-hearted that it is not even worth mentioning. So, I was hoping the third time will be a charm. When I set myself this goal half a year ago, I only wanted to do it because I was ashamed to be addicted to sleeping pills. This is such vague motivation that I doubt I would have gone very far with it . Now I have developed some real motivation to stop taking it. I started having some real troubling side-effects from it.

I realized that I have trouble remembering events that happen after I take the sleeping pill for the night. Initially it was off and on, but now it occurs all the time. The first indication that something was off was when I would sit down to watch an episode of a show on TV and the DVR would tell me that I had already watched it. I would watch it again and still not recall having watched it previously. I brushed it aside thinking maybe my husband watched it and that’s why it was marked “watched”.

Then my husband started telling me I was repeating myself – that I had already told him something the night before. But to me it was the first time I was saying it. I had such a hard time believing this because I have a really good memory. So much so, that I always thought of my good memory as more of a curse than as a gift. I always remember all the times I was hurt, what people said to hurt me, word by word. Its hard to forgive when you genuinely cannot forget! To top it off, it is a generally accepted fact in my family that my memory is better than my husband’s and it was simply ridiculous to me that he remembered things that I had forgotten (ah! pride does goeth before a fall!).

Even with these signs, I never really believed it. It is amazing how our mind conspires to fool us when we we don’t want to believe something. What finally convinced me was my Kindle. I always read before bed and lately I have been doing it less and less.  I knew I was reading less but I never questioned why. Last month, I got Stephen King’s “Bazaar of Bad Dreams” on my Kindle. A King book, and that too a short story collection! I would have had it finished in days. And yet, I still have about 40% to go. The reason finally dawned on me. It was because I was reading the same story over and over again! I would read before bed and stop halfway into the story. The next day, I would pick it up and have no memory of reading it. So I would go back and start reading it again. I would finish it and remember if I read it during the day. But if it was at bedtime, the same thing happened again and again. If this had been a real book, I would have never realized it as I almost never use a bookmark. I usually memorize the page number and come back to it. But this was my Kindle, and it opened to where I left off. Still, I initially dismissed it thinking my son had been fooling around with the Kindle and had turned the pages! But too much evidence was piling up and I finally had to face the fact that this was really happening.

I must have been subconsciously aware of it, because when I scrutinize some of my behaviors I realize that I stopped doing some things after dinner (like watching some shows or reading or anything that required me to remember it the next day) . When I finally faced up to it, it scared the bejesus out of me. There is a reason why  Alzheimer’s is my worst nightmare! Now, I have some real motivation to get off that drug! Over the past couple of weeks I reduced my dosage from 10 mg to 8 mg. Its been a hard couple of weeks and I know its only going to get worse before it gets better. But I do know one thing for sure. This time, I will get successfully get of it because now I have something that scares me worse than a bad night’s sleep.

On a side note, I think it is interesting that both the first thing that alerted me and the final thing that convinced me of my problem were both modern technological inventions (the DVR and the Kindle). So, there is something to be said for modern technology after all.

-AB

 

Keep calm and live life

Nearly a year ago, I downloaded a meditation app on my phone called “Calm”. I used the free version off and on for most of last year. It had nature sounds, scenes, and a series of guided meditation sessions called “7 days of calm”. The sessions introduced different practices of mindfulness meditation; from body scans to progressive relaxation for sleep. Around that time, I also downloaded several other meditation and relaxation apps mainly with the goal of controlling stress and helping me sleep better. But I eventually deleted all of them except Calm. A big plus point with Calm is the voice of the narrator who guides the meditation. The woman has an incredibly calm voice that is instantly relaxing and has done a great job narrating the guided sessions at a slow and even pace. I have deleted some of the other apps just because I couldn’t stand the voice that was used! The narration is also very intuitive and provides just enough instruction so you know what to do.

In January of this year, I decided that meditating regularly was going to be my resolution for this year. One afternoon on a whim I paid the subscription for the full app for the whole year ($40). It is more than I would have liked to spend but because it is a subscription, new content is added every month.

Now a month later, I feel that the $40 per year investment for my mental health was totally worth it. The daily sessions last between 10-12 minutes and that’s all it takes to significantly lower my stress levels. In the beginning, I wasn’t sure that it was helping me. Then I noted an increase in stress, irritation, and anger on the days I didn’t meditate. It became worse if I missed sessions for a couple of days in a row. I believe that a person can change only when they decide that they are going to change. For change to occur you need a trigger. If I didn’t benefit by the meditation, I wouldn’t have started to consciously make time for it. Initially, I would remember to meditate only after the kids get home from school (my guess is that’s when I need that extra patience and calm). But I found it so much harder to meditate for even 10 minutes when the kids are at home. Even if I told them that I was going to meditate and would like not to be disturbed for 10 minutes, they would decide that something was too urgent to wait 8 more minutes and would always interrupt me. So it took me a few days to realize that I needed to move my meditation time to earlier in the day – before the kids came home.

Nowadays, meditation is the first thing I do after the kids leave for school. Today, I celebrate 10 continuous days of meditation! So far, its biggest impact on me has been from the sessions that focus on “non-reactivity”. Increasingly, I find myself capable of realizing it when something upsets me and stepping away from it. I am learning to not react to such situations and instead, take the time to think about it and realize its not such a big deal after all. I am willing to wager that my cortisol levels are lower than they used to be. I can just feel calmness flood over me whenever I am able to do that.

There has been a wonderful side affect to this app. Back when I was meditating at the end of the day, I would sit and do it with my kids lying nearby reading. Soon, they became drawn to it and started meditating with me. I noticed that sometimes my son would be listening to it and fall asleep much faster than usual. My daughter says that it helps her to shut down at the end of the day and fall asleep. So, now I share my app with her. She takes it to bed with her (there are special sessions that guide you to sleep) and falls asleep listening to it.

If you are interested in really getting into meditation, I highly recommend “Calm”. Their website features also some freebies that are worth checking out. So, keep calm and live life.

-AB

 

Continuous partial attention – its a thing

This thing that I do, where I pay half-attention to a bunch of things at the same time, moving on from one thing to another – I thought it was just me being lazy and inattentive. Apparently, its not. Its called “continuous partial attention” and its a thing. Even more weird – its supposed to be a good thing. Last week I attended a guest lecture at work given by this amazingly creative person – Krish Ashok. He introduced this concept to us and as he expounded on it, it sounded increasingly familiar to me. Its what I do so much of the time. Mr. Ashok talked about it in a very positive context. He alluded to it being a strategy to success in today’s fast moving world. I was just kind of shocked that it had a name, that too one coined way back in 1998. One thing to note is that continuous partial attention (CPA) is not the same as multitasking.

Multitasking is driven by a need to be more productive and efficient, basically to get more things done. CPA on the other hand, tends to be driven by a need to make sure we are not missing anything. I multitask a lot, even though I am completely aware that it doesn’t really confer the advantage that we think it does. Studies show that our brain is not really capable of doing several things with the same success as it would if it were to concentrate on one thing. I remember when people referred to multitasking as a special amazing skill (some still do) and then studies started trickling in about the ineffectiveness of multitasking. Today, there are articles about how multitasking might even have a detrimental effect on our brains. I find it amusing that many people continue to list multitasking as a strength in their resumes! Why do I still multitask? because it gives me a feeling that I am on top of everything, that I am making more progress in my to-do list. Its amazing how good we are at fooling ourselves.

Coming back to CPA, I have found myself thinking about it all the time since that guest lecture (well at least partially but almost continuously, while I paid partial attention to other stuff). It made me more mindful of when I am doing it and I realized that it has negative consequences as well, even though Mr.Ashok did not go into that (his lecture was on creativity, not cognitive science). I realized that CPA might be big contributor to my stress levels and might have an even greater impact on my chronic insomnia. Its probably why my mind refuses to settle down at night and keeps jumping from one thing to another like a monkey. Now that I am aware of it, I think I will take a moment every once in a while, to slow down and breathe. To tell myself its okay if I missed something.  Train myself to take more control over the habit. I do know that it is a relatively recent habit. I might have started doing it several years ago and I wonder if it is a side effect of parenting. I am forced to pay partial attention when my daughter is telling me something, while my son is asking me something else, and I have to watch the stove at the same time while my mother is calling me! Even though I allot special “kids time” every week to give them each my undivided attention, I have to admit that I survive on CPA the rest of the week!

So what are your thoughts on CPA? do you realize that you are doing it? -AB